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Catch as catch can

Crisp catching on very quickly

BOSTON -- A year ago, Coco Crisp was running away from the wolves, looking for a place to hide. On Saturday night, the former villain of Boston was busy running down balls hit to his right, to his left and over his head.

Crisp covered Fenway Park's center field better than morning dew, even better than the giant capital "B" mowed into the grass. He ran down eight of his pitchers' mistakes, including five straight drives in the seventh and eighth innings in the Red Sox's punishing 10-5 victory over the Angels.

So, Happy Anniversary, Red Sox. No. Not happy. Healing Anniversary.

On the first anniversary of the Boston Massacre II, the Red Sox were healthy, hungry and hammering.

Yes, it was a year ago on Saturday that the New York Yankees pulled into "The Fens" and steamrolled to a doubleheader sweep, scoring 26 runs to trigger a five-game weekend sweep that buried the Red Sox in 2006.

A year later, the Red Sox were taking their Major League-leading 74th win in impressive comeback fashion and maintaining a five-game lead over those Yankees in the American League East.

Oh. And they were all accounted for.

"We had Trot [Nixon] down, [Jason Varitek] down and were about to lose [Jon] Lester, Manny [Ramirez], [Jonathan Papelbon], even [David Ortiz] for a while," Crisp said, recalling the injury siege that greased the Red Sox's late 2006 slide.

"It's a little different now," Crisp said. "It's exciting to be on top. We're ready to battle, and we'll see if we can stay there."

It's very different for Crisp, whose first Boston season was a series of train wrecks. If there is a worst-case scenario for debuts in high-profile places like Red Sox Nation, Crisp's adhered to it faithfully.

Crisp was replacing a hirsute icon, Johnny Damon. Five games into the season, he suffered a fracture to his left index finger that would disable him for 7 1/2 weeks. Two days after he went on the disabled list, Boston gave him a three-year contract extension, making him a target. When he returned and his game still ailed as the Red Sox struggled, Crisp became an even bigger target.

Whew. That's a tough introduction to an impulsive town.

However, Crisp's inner strength guided him through that wilderness into this season's clearing. Following another slow start in '07, he has hit well over .300 for longer than two months and is one of the Red Sox's most versatile threats, as one of two switch-hitters (Varitek being the other) in their regular lineup.

"I'm still battling. Two-seventy is nothing to crow about," said Crisp, referring to the .273 batting average he took to bed on Saturday night. "I'm still not where I want to be. But all I can do is keep fighting through it."

Crisp is much closer to where general manager Theo Epstein expected him to be. A month after Damon walked out on him to the Bronx, the Boston GM packaged four players to Cleveland for Crisp and two others no longer here (catcher Josh Bard and pitcher David Riske).

Red Sox Nation, already uneasy over the departure of Damon, was not appeased. But, funny how these things work out.

Now, only partly through the second of his four contracted seasons in New York, Damon is no longer playing regularly in center field. And, here, Crisp is justifying Epstein's vision.

"We've seen exactly the type of guy we thought we were getting in the trade," Epstein said following Saturday night's game. "It had been puzzling, because guys 24, 25 [years old], you don't see them backsliding from what they've done. But he had the injury, then he slumped. But he's made some adjustments and is a genuine threat.

"And he's a dynamic outfielder, one of the two top in the game, I think. He and Ichiro [Suzuki]. And offensively, he's driving the ball from both sides of the plate."

Crisp is driving it right out from under Damon's shadow, to be truthful. The tales of the tape following Saturday's action:

• Crisp: .273 with five homers, 44 RBIs and 68 runs scored.

• Damon: .256 average with six homers, 44 RBIs and 70 runs scored.

But it is on defense where Crisp can make the biggest difference. Where, in fact, he is expected to make a difference. Which Crisp has: He recently came to the end of a streak of 153 games without an error, a Boston record for outfielders.

And, as Crisp showed on Saturday night, he hadn't stayed clean, because he doesn't get to enough balls to take a chance on getting dirty. Especially starting with one out in the seventh, he looked like a cowhide-seeking missile -- much to the Angels' frustration.

While their team still trailed by only a run, 6-5, Vladimir Guerrero ripped a seventh-inning, two-out drive into the dead-center vortex, Garret Anderson led off the eighth with a drive to the track in slightly left-center, and Gary Matthews Jr. followed with a rope to straightaway left-center.

Crisp ran all three down with ease, an estimated 1,150 feet worth of outs.

And this isn't an easy center field to cover. Although it assuredly is easier for the home guy than it is for a visitor, such as the Angels' Reggie Willits, who had been asked to give it a try in the day portion of Friday's doubleheader.

Willits, normally a left fielder, spent much of the afternoon chasing balls as if they were dollar bills tied to a string being pulled by unseen hands.

Crisp partly credited some unseen hands, too: those of coaches and of pitcher Curt Schilling, which kept waving him into good defensive positions.

"I was always in the right place," Crisp said.

Crisp was immediately struck by the irony of those words: A year ago, this seemed like the worst place at the worst time.

"I hope I continue to play well, and help the team down the stretch," Crisp added, happy to know that this time there will be a stretch to drive, not a string to play out.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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